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Are hedgehogs on the way out?

Are hedgehogs on the way out?

Hedgehogs have always been seen as an essential element of rural and suburban Britain... but now they're vanishing

How bad is their plight in Britain?

In the 1950s, there were an estimated 36.5 million hedgehogs in the UK; today, not much more than one million, possibly less. Three recent surveys suggest their number fell by a third between 2002 and 2012 and continues to do so, even though in 2007 hedgehogs were officially designated a conservation priority. Last year, sightings fell by 4%. Some experts say that unless urgent action is taken, hedgehogs could be extinct in Britain by 2050. Yet in many rural parts of Europe, from northwest Russia to the Mediterranean, their numbers are still healthy.

How long have they been around?

For 15 million years, according to fossil evidence. They roamed Britain with mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, and thrived even more with the arrival of humans, who developed an affection for this distinctive little animal with its peculiar ways (see box). Medieval folk planted hedgerows, which provided it with the perfect habitat; the Victorians sent hedgehogs into cellars to eat cockroaches; and the new class of owner-gardeners that sprang up with the rise of suburbia in the 1920s and 1930s saw hedgehogs as labour-saving devices for eating the slugs, caterpillars and snails ravaging their garden plants, and started to provide their "prickly friends" with "hedgehog hotels" for the winter. But unfortunately such species affection hasn't resulted in species protection.

Haven't hedgehogs been made a protected species?

Not really. In 2007 the hedgehog was classified a Biodiversity Action Plan "priority" species in the UK. And ex-Tory minister Ann Widdecombe has launched a campaign with the Wildlife Aid Foundation to reverse the decline in population. She wants a mandatory code of practice that would force Network Rail, the Highways Agency and other official bodies to treat the hedgehog's plight as critical. But so far Parliament has given them no serious protection, in sharp contrast to their main predator - the badger - which has been the subject of three separate protective Acts.

Are badgers responsible for the hedgehog's decline?

Some of it, quite possibly. Badgers prey on hedgehogs, using their deft claws to unravel hedgehogs from their tight, defensive ball and tear through their soft underside. They also compete with hedgehogs for slugs and worms. The number of badger colonies has doubled in 25 years, and where they are most plentiful hedgehogs tend to be scarce. An analysis by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, of hedgehogs seen on parks and playing fields, found that their number almost doubled in areas that from 1998 to 2008 had taken part in badger-culling trials, but remained flat in those that hadn't. A study in the Netherlands, where badger density is also rising, came to a similar conclusion: Dutch hedgehogs are now mostly found in towns. But badgers alone are not to blame: hedgehog numbers have also declined sharply in areas where badgers are scarce.

What are the other reasons?

It's the old, familiar story of habitat loss. With the spread of intensive farming since WWII, 200,000 miles of hedges have been grubbed up, along with huge swathes of grassland. And though fewer are now being destroyed, those that remain are less rich in wildlife than they used to be because they're less well maintained. Use of pesticides has also been a factor, as has increased traffic on our roads: tens of thousands of hedgehogs are squashed by cars and lorries every year. Meanwhile, in urban areas there has been a move to smaller, tidier gardens. Grass, soil and flowerbeds have been replaced with decking, gravel and other sterile surfaces; hedges with fencing and walls. The latter block the path of hedgehogs, which typically roam for up to two miles a night foraging for food.

Can't we also level a charge against climate change?

We certainly can. Warmer winters are being said to have affected hedgehog hibernation patterns: too many of them are waking up at the wrong time of year before there is food around. This year, owing to a wet summer and a warm October, many were born late and may not have enough body fat to survive hibernation. However, blaming it on the climate fails to explain why the decline in numbers hasn't been a Europe-wide phenomenon. Nor has climate change had much impact in the Hebridean island of South Uist, where hedgehogs were introduced in 1974 to control slugs and snails. Since then, the hedgehog population of South Uist and nearby islands has shot up, even as it slumped on the mainland.

Is the hedgehog's plight significant for other wildlife?

Ecologists classify hedgehogs as an "indicator species" - one that can be used to diagnose the health of a whole ecosystem. Concern that the big decline in hedgehogs may reflect a more general crisis in the British ecosystem seems to be borne out in a 2013 survey carried out by 25 wildlife organisations. This found that almost two-thirds of British species have declined in the last 50 years - among them turtle doves, red squirrels, butterflies, moths and bats - and that one in ten faces the risk of extinction from our shores. Since 1950, more than 28 species have become extinct here, including the burbot - or freshwater cod - which died out as a result of pollution. However, thanks to conservation work, some species - bitterns, red kites, otters - are making a comeback.

Can the hedgehog be conserved?

Many groups are campaigning for that... with some success. The British Hedgehog Preservation Society has persuaded Scottish Natural Heritage to stop spending millions on culling hedgehogs in South Uist, and instead to catch them and release them on the mainland. The society has also got burger giant McDonald's to change the shape of its McFlurry dessert containers, which had bought a sad end to many foraging hedgehogs whose heads got stuck in them. Some 33,000 households have joined a Hedgehog Street campaign to make the hedgehog welcome in their gardens; many wildlife trusts have hedgehog awareness campaigns; and there is a well-developed network of hedgehog sanctuaries and carers.

The peculiarities of erinaceus europaeus
  • The European hedgehog got its name from its preferred habitat and the pig-like grunts it makes.
  • Hedgehogs have about 5,000 spines. These are really modified hairs. Each lasts about a year then drops out and a replacement grows.
  • Hedgehogs have some natural resistance to snake venom. This means that they can win a fight with an adder - and are not averse to eating it afterwards.
  • When exposed to pungent smells or tastes, hedgehogs exhibit a behaviour called "self-anointing" in which they rub frothy saliva on their quills, so that they look as if they are covered in soap bubbles. Despite various theories, no one knows the reason for this.
  • There may be up to 500 fleas on any one hedgehog, but the specific hedgehog flea rarely bites humans.
  • The tradition of Groundhog Day in the US, when people predict the weather from the behaviour of groundhogs emerging from hibernation, had its origins in medieval Germany, where farmers used hedgehogs for their weather predictions.

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